After an eventful summer, the Los Angeles Lakers are finally back and ready to take to the hardwood for the NBA preseason.
The reigning Summer League champions will have their work cut out for them as they attempt to integrate a host of new players into their system.
Head coach Luke Walton will have some difficult decisions to make with a roster that is full of interesting pieces. One thing that Walton well have the benefit of is a lot of versatility on his roster.
Let’s dig into some of the positional battles that we should see play out in the preseason.
Tyler Ennis vs Josh Hart (with an assist from Jordan Clarkson)
Clearly, the Lakers starting backcourt is the pairing of Lonzo Ball and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, whose skill sets mesh well on paper. After that, things get murky.
Aside from Ball, Tyler Ennis is the only other natural point guard on the roster, not including Alex Caruso who is on a two-way contract, thus limiting the amount of time he can spend with the senior team. Similarly, Josh Hart sits behind Caldwell-Pope as a natural shooting guard, but the presence of one Jordan Clarkson severely impacts the rotation.
At this point, there is no question that Clarkson is the best of the reserve guards, but he has the blessing, or perhaps curse, of being able to play either guard position. That has resulted in an ever-changing role, and whichever position Walton ultimately decides to use Clarkson at will have a major impact on Hart and Ennis.
It’s possible that either Hart or Ennis proves themselves to be so valuable that Walton simply has to find a way to get them on the floor, but with Clarkson already being pushed as a potential Sixth Man of the Year candidate, his success will be the priority.
A dark horse for the reserve guard minutes next to Clarkson would be Corey Brewer as he excels in transition and provides defense and a veteran presence. He seems more suited for the small forward position at this stage in his career, however. Speaking of which…
Luol Deng vs Corey Brewer vs Kyle Kuzma
Magic Johnson considered Brandon Ingram to be untouchable in trade discussions this summer and based on what we have heard coming out of training camp, that appears to have been the correct decision. Ingram has the starting small forward position locked down, but what about his backup?
Luol Deng was brought in last season to help ease Ingram’s transition into the NBA and absorb most of the minutes at the three, but he struggled in what was the worst season of his career. It’s possible that he could bounce back, but at this stage of his career, it’s clear that Deng is best-suited at power forward, where minutes are nearly impossible to come by.
Corey Brewer is another intriguing option, who has made a career out of slashing to the basket and playing tough defense. The problem is that he doesn’t provide much floor spacing as a 28 percent shooter for his career from three (and just 21 percent with the Lakers), but Brewer did have more pep in his step than Deng did last season.
An intriguing, and somewhat surprising, candidate is Kyle Kuzma who was incredible in Summer League and looks like the kind of versatile player that just about every team in the league is after these days. He can handle the ball a bit, defend on the perimeter, and his three-point shooting has grown by leaps and bounds since the end of his college season at Utah.
The only problem is that Kuzma, at 6’9” and 220 pounds, projects to be more of a power forward. The Lakers, perhaps realizing how thin minutes are at the four, are working on transitioning him to the three at training camp, but it’s not an easy jump to make. He switches willingly on defense and takes on the challenge when smaller players try to dribble past him, but asking him to check wings full-time may be a bit much.
Who wins out and becomes the Lakers backup small forward is anyone’s guess, but if Summer League is an indication (and it might not be), it would appear that Walton has to find minutes for Kuzma somehow.
Julius Randle vs Larry Nance Jr. vs Kyle Kuzma vs Luol Deng
The Lakers have a number of crowded positions on their team, but none are as packed as power forward. Julius Randle has been the starter for most of the past two seasons, and has to be considered the heavy favorite to take on that role again this year.
With free agency looming in the summer of 2018, Randle spent this offseason getting into ridiculous shape, which should allow him to be even more explosive. Perhaps more importantly, the Lakers hope that Randle’s now-chiseled physique will allow him to exert more energy on the defensive end of the floor, where he struggled last season.
That said, he has spent his summer working on his outside shooting, but if Randle can’t find a way to consistently hit a jump shot he could leave the door open a bit for Nance or Kuzma to sneak into the starting role.
Johnson recently called Nance the Lakers’ “secret weapon”, and was not interested in trading him this offseason. Nance has the ability to guard multiple positions on the floor and is a better passer than advertised. If he can get his shot falling a bit more, and increase his aggression, then Nance could make the leap this season.
As mentioned in the small forward battle, Kuzma has a diverse skill set that should serve him well at power forward, but it’s not going to be easy to steal minutes away from either Randle or Nance.
Deng would also be best served at power forward but would appear to be behind the other three in the pecking order unless he can bounce back in a major way.
Ivica Zubac vs Andrew Bogut vs Thomas Bryant
The Lakers brought in Brook Lopez to be their starting center in a trade last summer, and it appeared that his backup would be second-year standout Ivica Zubac. However, a shaky Summer League performance and the arrival of Andrew Bogut has thrown the reserve center position into question.
First, it should be noted that Walton will almost certainly experiment with small-ball lineups featuring either Randle or Nance at center, which would come at the expense of Zubac, Bogut, and Bryant.
For the occasions when he does utilize a true center behind Lopez, Zubac still has a lot of upside despite a rough summer. He has a soft touch around the basket and can block shots at the rim. He primarily struggled to keep up with the pace of the game in Las Vegas, but he reportedly adjusted quickly and showed up to training camp with just eight percent body fat, which should allow him to be more mobile.
Bogut, on the other hand, isn’t even a lock to make the roster thanks to his partially-guaranteed contract. At 33, the defensive big man doesn’t figure to be a long-term piece for the Lakers, but he did win a championship with Walton during his days with the Golden State Warriors, and the hope is that he can essentially be an extra coach on the floor.
He’s coming off of a major injury and is an elder statesman on this team, but Bogut could steal minutes away from Zubac if he shows that he still has something left in the tank.
Additionally, should Bogut make the team (which appears likely), that would mean the end for V.J. Beachem, Vander Blue, Stephen Zimmerman, and Briante Weber unless they win the Lakers lone remaining two-way contract.
Bryant is essentially the opposite of Bogut. He’s young and runs the floor well, plus his ability to step out to the three-point line is a major plus for spacing. He’s a project who probably won’t get many minutes right away, but down the line, he could be an asset for the team.